CRYSTAL RIVER — Jack Roland Murphy, or “Murf the Surf,” the man behind the “Jewel Heist of the Century” in 1965 died Sunday at age 83, according to his wife, Kitten.
Murphy, who was often referred to simply as “Murf," was an infamous jewel thief in New York, a convicted murderer in Broward County and a reformed felon who lived his final years in Citrus County. His 1960s crime spree led to the Hollywood film Murph the Surf in 1975.
The theft of the Star of India and a dozen other precious jewels from the American Museum of Natural History — and his arrest, two days later — was what first put Murphy in the national spotlight. What followed was the life of a folk hero turned murderer, who barely avoided Florida’s electric chair before eventually finding God in prison.
Murphy was born in California but moved often as a kid. He landed in Pennsylvania where he eventually played tennis at the University of Pittsburgh. He got tired of the snow, he told the then St. Petersburg Times in 2012, and headed south for Miami at 18 years old.
It was in Florida, while teaching tennis lessons at upscale hotels, where Murphy first began to steal. He also became one of the most prominent surfers of the time — even taking first place in a competition in Virginia Beach in 1963 that was a precursor to the East Coast Surfing Championships.
Local hustlers and thieves used Murphy’s athleticism to their advantage, Murphy told the New York Times last year. After robbing mansions along the Intracoastal Waterway, he would swim the jewels to a getaway car on the mainland.
In 1965, Murphy planned to rob the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Murphy successfully made off with the famed Star of India sapphire, which is larger than a golf ball, along with other precious gems that were valued at the equivalent of $3 million today.
Murphy and his co-conspirators — though successful in escaping the museum without being caught — didn’t get far. Just two days after leaving New York City with the stolen jewels, Murphy was arrested in Miami. He was sentenced to two years in prison. The Star of India was found in a locker at a Miami bus station.
That was just the beginning of Murphy’s legal troubles.
Murphy stole again upon his release from prison in 1967, according to the Times, which eventually led to murder.
During a heist in South Florida, Murphy bludgeoned and hacked two women to death and dumped their bodies in a creek, according to court records.
Murphy was sentenced to life in prison.
While serving time, Murphy told the St. Petersburg Times that he found God after countless trips from chaplains to the prison in Starke, Fla., where he was sentenced to spend the rest of his life.
After 17 years in prison, Murphy was released on parole in 1986 and dedicated his life to helping other inmates in prison find religion. He spent the final years of his life traveling from Crystal River to preach to inmates in a dozen countries, according to the Times.
He’d never steal again — but he did still make his way over to Florida’s East Coast to surf. The Florida Surf Museum in Cocoa Beach released a statement in remembrance of Murphy on Sunday:
“Jack ‘Murf the Surf’ Murphy — surfing pioneer, jewel thief, convicted murderer, who spent the rest of his life ministering the word of Jesus in prisons across the world — has passed away. We will post more details when we get them ...”